Cuba’s upcoming transformation

  • Communist stalwarts may be moving closer to democracy
- Jon Lee Anderson

Jan 8, 2019-

On the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, which the ruling Communist Party celebrated on Tuesday, the island nation is stable, having overcome such existential threats as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and a half-century of diplomatic isolation and withering economic sanctions imposed by the United States. Cuba has also weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main Cold War benefactor, and a slew of traumatic internal ructions including the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the Cuban raft exodus in 1994. Last but not least, Cuba has managed its first major political transitions, following the death in 2016 of its defining leader, Fidel Castro; the presidential retirement, last year, of his younger brother, Raúl Castro; and Raúl’s succession in office by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, a 58-year-old Communist Party loyalist.

For the first time since 1959, in other words, Cuba is ruled by someone other than a Castro, and it has handled the transition without the drama or bloodshed that many other revolutionary states have experienced after the death of their patriarchs.

The Cuban Communist system shows no sign of collapse. But the internal struggle over whether to have more democracy or continued dictatorship is well underway in Cuba, although it is not couched in those terms. It is increasingly clear that Cuban society is no longer—if it ever was—a homogeneous bloc of revolutionary workers willing to simply applaud or fall silent at the decisions of their leaders. In a possible sign of change, Cubans will vote next month on a new Constitution to replace the country’s Cold War-era charter. Several hundred changes were made to the draft to incorporate the views of Cubans who were consulted on proposed reforms. Not all of the changes are progressive: In response to apparent widespread public demand, a clause was dropped that would have explicitly allowed same-sex marriage; another alteration reinstated language that describes Cuba’s ultimate political goal as “advancing toward communism.” There was also public pushback against a draft law prohibiting the accumulation of private property. In response, the government agreed to a compromise in which state regulators will decide what property can be owned case by case. Another recent decree that has generated resistance seeks to impose a system of prior official approval for cultural performances and of censorship of art determined to have “immoral or vulgar” content or which “misuses patriotic symbols.” The government has agreed to step back aspects of the law.

This wrangling underscores the evolving struggle over the nature of the Cuban state. Some of the concerns raised about the draft Constitution clearly reflect the will of older Cubans, many of whom are socially conservative, have spent most of their lives living under Communism and constitute a growing percentage of the population. Other concerns point to the emerging self-confidence and clout of younger Cubans, increasing numbers of whom are involved in the country’s new economy, known as cuentapropismo—or self-employed work, which was authorised and significantly expanded during Raúl Castro’s presidency. But though most of the news coming out of Cuba nowadays is about economics, it is peppered with items that have an out-of-time quality. In December, for instance, there were headlines about how Cubans were going to get 3G on their mobile phones, an event prosaic in most Western countries but huge for Cubans, who were not allowed even to own cellphones until 2008, when Raúl Castro decreed that they could.

Most immediately, that means rethinking its relationship with Venezuela and Nicaragua. Both are countries with which Cuba has longstanding ties and much shared history, but which have become increasingly repressive and are no longer friends to be proud of. Cuba need not betray its friends in order to do the right thing: It could deploy its considerable political and diplomatic resources to take a leadership role in ensuring that the political transitions necessary in Venezuela and Nicaragua be peaceful ones.Cuba’s rulers also need to continue to open up. Just as it did 60 years ago with a revolution that, for better or worse, helped reshape the modern world, Cuba can once again choose its own path, and once again be a leader among nations. It can choose to be more democratic. Now that would be truly revolutionary.

— © 2019 The New York Times

Published: 08-01-2019 06:50

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